Falling in Love with Chekhov

by QTC co-founder Stephanie Mumford

Stephanie Mumford
Stephanie Mumford

As a member of the University of Minnesota MFA Acting program long, long ago, I was required to take a class outside the theater curriculum. Having already become a fan of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov in college, where I directed his farce, The Bear, I elected to take a class on Chekhov’s short stories. After reading our first assignment, “Late Blooming Flowers,” one of Chekhov’s earliest works, I was hooked. The heartbreak of zero endings brought on by inertia, inaction, and miscommunication struck me as so true-to-life. At the same time, I was charmed and amused by his spot-on characterizations of human foibles and depiction of ironic behaviors. While it is difficult to choose favorites from Chekhov’s vast collection of delightful and insightful short works, three of them—”A Little Trick,””Verochka,” and “The Lady with the Little Dog”– struck me as thematically related and I have long wanted to adapt them to the stage. But how?

Having successfully tackled “A Little Trick” with the exceptional talents of Michele Osherow and Doug Prouty, in a first rendition, and subsequently at QTC with Sara Dabney Tisdale and Jonathan Feuer as the would-be lovers sledding down an icy hill, I decided to undertake the more complicated of the three stories, “The Lady with the Little Dog.”

Problem #1 – dealing with the narration. Since “A Little Trick” was only a few pages long, I decided the best way to stay true to Chekhov’s intent was to simply modify the narration into a long monologue for the central male character. That approach would not be possible, nor interesting to an audience, with the much longer “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Therefore, I decided to divide the lines between a Chekhov-like narrator and his creation, Dmitry Dmitriyevich Gurov, to explore their relationship and make it more active, but without inserting any– well not much– dialogue of my own. (Additional dialogue inserted in the adaptation was taken from Chekhov’s short story “About Love,” his play Three Sisters, and Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina.)

Portrait of the artist Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900), 1889. Artist: Anonymous
Portrait of the artist Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900), 1889. Artist: Anonymous

Problem #2 – multiple settings in Yalta, Moscow, and Saratov. My initial idea for the set was simply a long curved platform with just a few pieces of furniture. The audience would fill in the rest with their imaginations. Then I thought that a few projected images taken from classic Russian art would go a long way to help set the scene. Fortunately, the prolific seascape painter Aivazovsky (left) provided me with a myriad of options for depicting the lavender moonlit Black Sea noted in the story, as well as a transcendent sunrise over Oreanda. To represent Moscow, I found old (public domain) Russian footage of a snow-covered Petrovka Street– the very street mentioned by Gurov in the story.

Problem #3 – casting multiple incidental roles. Since I knew it would be a challenge to find and integrate all the actors needed to portray the numerous minor roles in the story, I decided to have the narrator and musicians assume these characters when needed. The mutability of the set and characters give the production a dreamlike impression, which is the goal. At this point, we are only into our third week of rehearsals, but what were once concepts are beginning to take shape into a moving and delightful story.

The Lady with the Little Dog runs July 8 – August 7, 2016 at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, where QTC is the Resident Theatre Company. Tickets are on sale now

One thought on “Falling in Love with Chekhov

Add yours

  1. Hi, Stephanie, Sharon and I thoroughly enjoyed your production of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” last Sunday. What an amazing job you did. The set in and of itself was fantastic. You and Jack and everyone else involved with the set did a great job, as usual. Few details were spared. Having music added such an incredible atmosphere: it just felt so natural. Having your narrator (David Dubov) not only narrate but interact as well was a stroke of genius. It helped to pull everything together, and he was a moving force in the play. Having a back-lit display screen helped to augment the tone of the play. I think that this production has been one of the best that you and Quotidian have done. You are so talented. Bob Rothermel


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